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What AI Thinks About Your Latest Zoom Performance – Rachel Cossar
Neuro Agent

Did you know that where you position yourself in the frame during virtual meetings can impact how others perceive your level of authority? Even things like facial expression and hand movements – or lack of – can all affect the impression you make on your audience.  Rachel Cossar is an expert in nonverbal communication and leadership presence facilitation, and she’s here to help us show up the right way to our next virtual meeting or webinar. 

Rich: My guest today is a leader in the field of nonverbal communication and leadership presence facilitation. As a former nationally ranked athlete and professional ballet dancer, she has a knack for translating unique skills into relatable business skills and competencies.  

Virtual Sapiens comes as an evolution of her combined work as founder of Choreography for Business, a nonverbal communication consulting firm, as well as a faculty member with Mobius Executive Leadership, and as a leadership presence facilitator with Ariel Group. 

With the increased dependency of video events as a way to connect and drive impact across organizations, she and her team at Virtual Sapiens are excited to open up a world of access when it comes to one of the most human and most important skills in business, communication.  

Today we are going to be talking about how to show up the right way for your next virtual meeting or webinar with Rachel Cossar. Rachel, welcome to the program.  

Rachel: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Rich. 

Rich: I’m really excited about this. So in your bio, you mentioned that you founded Choreography for Business, a non-verbal consulting firm. What did you learn there that then led you to Virtual Sapiens?  

Rachel: Yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of live facilitation coaching workshops, one-on-one, within this consulting firm. And I was working with leaders and sales teams, as you can imagine, and I learned a lot. At every workshop or every coaching opportunity I had, I was also learning.  

But I will say that there was a little bit of a bee in my bonnet around the level of access to this kind of coaching and feedback. Like when we think about the way we show up, the way we behave, whether it’s the way we hold ourselves and our posture, how we use hand gestures, how we move our faces, there’s almost nothing more personal to us than that. And I always felt that if you could give someone just a little bit of feedback on ways that they might show up more confidently or be a little more engaging as a speaker, they could blow through some of the barriers in their professional lives.  

And so I was always, before the pandemic and before we introduced any technology to this space, curious to see how you could create a little bit more scale while still providing people with that personalized feedback. And those were questions that I had and things that I realized as I was very non-scalable teaching and facilitating in this space. 

Rich: So before we get into some tips that people can put into practice so that they can improve how they show up on, on video, let’s talk a little bit about what your company actually does, and how AI fits into what you’re actually offering.  

Rachel: Definitely. So Virtual Sapiens is the name of the current day company, and it really builds on the body of work that I developed under Choreography for Business, but introduces AI, machine learning, and computer vision specifically to provide more self-serve convenience options for professionals to access this kind of feedback and coaching.  

So if you think about your typical Zoom call or Teams call, one of our products has an in-call coaching option that people can install, and then it kind of sits alongside your Zoom or Teams call and doesn’t do very much if things are going well. But if you have started to exhibit certain behaviors that may actually be barriers to communication, or maybe you’re not showing up as an active and engaged participant and listener – which can develop a little bit of distrust with the person you’re trying to connect with in moments like that – we might give you a little visual nudge, and again, using our AI in real time to help you course correct on that video call itself. 

Rich: So the AI is watching me while I’m on Zoom, and it’s providing real-time feedback, so I stop slouching or start using my hands in a more active way. That’s what I’m hearing. Correct?  

Rachel: That’s exactly right. That’s one of our product offerings, yes.  

Rich: Excellent. And I had the opportunity to actually use the software, and I was very surprised by some of the feedback I got, which was very helpful. 

Now with Covid forcing Zoom and other video communication tools upon us, many listeners may be wondering why we even need help on this front. We do it every day, do we really need any help with the coaching? Didn’t we already learn how to communicate successfully trial by fire through Covid? What would you say to that concern? 

Rachel: Yeah, so the fact of the matter is that we haven’t. We see on a daily basis, we enter video meetings with 1, 2, 3, 10 people, and we’ll see all kinds of faux pas within the video presence world, right? Whether people are still incorrectly framed, they’re not lit properly, even something simple as like hand gestures, which I know came up in your feedback, right? 

People will be like, “I am using hand gestures. I’m using hand gestures very effective. I’m very comfortable using hand gestures, even on video.” And I’m like, if your hands aren’t showing up in the lens, it actually doesn’t matter because no one sees it.  

Rich: Yeah. At most your shoulders are shrugging. So I’m watching you, and you are very good about lifting your hands up. This to me feels, and I’m doing it now, mimicking you. This to me feels unnatural. But to the person watching, this actually lets people see that I am more engaged in the conversation. That’s what your research has discovered, correct? 

Rachel: Yep. That and yeah, it’s just interesting. I find whenever you have to try on a new behavior or habit, or you get feedback and you have to change the way you’ve been doing something, it will always feel inauthentic or awkward, right? And you have to play around with it a little bit before you can find your space of authenticity within that feedback. So it’s very normal for things to feel… Same thing with looking into the lens, right? You’re like, no, I would much prefer to talk to Rich. And look at Rich where he’s on my, this feels great for me. But meanwhile, Rich is… 

Rich: Yeah. You’re so much better than I am at that. As soon as you say that, I’m like, oh yeah, shoot, I’d be looking over here.  

So before we even get started, as far as what we are doing on screen, I know that some of the pieces of feedback that you provide is on the framing, as you mentioned, as well as the lighting. So what are some tips that people can start improving on when it comes to those kind of setup items? 

Rachel: Definitely framing. It’s easy to dismiss because it’s so simple, and a lot of people think that so long as they can see themselves somewhere on the screen, it’s fine. But there’s been research recently done in this space that indicates that where you show up in relation to your lens actually has a pretty serious influence on your impression of authority. 

So if I enter the zoom call and the lens is at eye height, you and I are equals. If I show up and maybe I’m using an external camera and it’s much higher and so I have to look up at you, all of a sudden I’m much more childlike and I’ve reduced my authority.  

Same thing was it if I enter the Zoom call and my laptop or my lens is below me and I’m looking down on you, it immediately makes you feel smaller, makes it feel like I’m this reigning overlord presence. We want to think about having our lens at eye height, because the lens is your audience’s perspective, right? It’s their point of view. You want to give yourself enough space so that you can move around a little bit. You don’t want to be so close that you’re restricted. You also don’t want to be so close that the viewing experience becomes intensified for your audience, right? 

You and I want to maintain this professional distance, social distance. If I get so close to the lens, it immediately makes things really aggressive.. My whole face is blown up for you. You get to see all kinds… it’s just like watching Les Misérables. That film where it was just like closeups of these actors’ faces for three hours and everyone was emotionally devastated at the end of it. It’s just too much.  

Rich: Yeah, framing is important. Framing is important for sure. And then lighting, because you’re well lit. I am half lit in a very dramatic sort of Captain Kirk way, because I have windows on one side of my office and not on the other. And I didn’t turn on my little cheap lights over here to balance it. So what are some tips that you have about lighting us so that we look like professional TV people?  

Rachel: Yeah The main things you want to think about lighting is that your primary, you want to be in a well-lit room, right? So you don’t want to, if at all possible, you don’t want to be in a dark closet. Because if you’re in a dark closet with one light, it’s going to cause all kinds of wild effects, right? 

So you’re in a well-lit room, you want the primary source of light directed on your image evenly. So exactly to your point, Rich, if you were to do our assessment or use any of our tools, you would get probably like a low to medium right now. When you’re lighting specifically because the light exposure on one side of your face is brighter than the other side of the face. And it’s not that you have to show up as this TV personality, right? No one needs to be overproduced, but you want to be able to stand out within your Zoom square. You want people to very quickly be able to identify your face and understand your facial expression. 

Rich: Makes sense. I sometimes actually pull down these. I was on a web TV show today and actually pulled down all the shades, just so it’d be a little bit more balanced. I should have done that for you, and my apologies for not.  

Rachel: Oh, no worries. No worries.  

Rich: But, alright. So once we’ve gotten those kind of basics taken care of, I know that posture in the real world, the non-verbal posture signs are really important. What are some of the tips you have for showing up when it comes to, I’m using Zoom as the umbrella term, but showing up on Zoom when it comes to posture?  

Rachel: Yeah, so posture is an interesting one, because again, it’s a very personal, non-verbal, right? We all hold ourselves in a different way, and oftentimes the way we hold ourselves is built on the shoulders of past education, experience, et cetera. 

So the simple rule of thumb is that, video is two dimensional, right? So we want to make sure that our shoulders are in as much of an open and upright posture or position as possible. It’s very easy on video to start leaning over to one side and getting a little close to the person on your screen. And all of a sudden you’ve completely reoriented yourself towards what you see instead of what your audience sees.  

And yeah, like being open and upright is a signal of ease, comfort, confidence, and energy. As soon as you start altering those things, you droop your posture. And it’s interesting because the studies between the effects of posture on other people’s perceptions of us, but also the effects of posture on our own self-perception just cannot be ignored. 

Rich: Yeah, I mean I do some of those exercises before I step on stage many times, so I certainly know the impact. That just like stretching out your arms can have, now this is a personal problem that I have, but if I’m in a half an hour to an hour Zoom meeting, especially with my team, there are times I’m leaning back because I would do that around the conference table, or like you said, leaning in.  

Any tips for someone like me, who has the attention span of a three-year-old, to sit in frame at the same distance? Or is it just, I know I read in one of the tips, plant your feet firmly on the ground, which is always sound advice. But are there other things that we can do to appear less fidgety and a little bit more engaged with what’s going on in the conversation? 

Rachel: Yeah. I think it’s easy to move from the role of active speaker, where we tend to be a little more aware of how we’re showing up, to one of like invisible listener. And if you move from that space to invisible listener, you’re like, “Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Most people are going to be paying attention to the person who’s talking. I’ll just fade into the background and do whatever I feel like.” And the fact of the matter is that on video, you actually never know when someone’s really watching you. And anyone could be watching you, if you have your video on, anyone could be seeing you or watching you at any given time. 

And when you are playing the role of listener or participant, you have a lot of power to stay engaged and to help raise the overall energy of that event. If you’re showing the person that you’re there, you’re listening, you’re considering what they’re saying. Maybe you’re taking notes, it doesn’t have to be aggressive nodding all the time. But even just a head tilt now and then to show the person that you’re there can also help you stay a little more engaged and less prone to literally and figuratively taking a little more space from the call.  

Rich: All right. Now we mentioned hand gestures before, and I am somebody who talks a lot with their hands, but usually below the screens, that sort of stuff. How much is too much? What’s the right amount of hand movement? And are there certain gestures that we should try working into a repertoire, and maybe others that we should really avoid?  

Rachel: Yeah. Yeah. Just, man, hand gestures are my favorite, so I love talking about them. First thing’s first, you have to start understanding where you need to position your hands so that they’re seen.  

The other thing is that there’s a whole vocabulary of hand gestures at our disposal, hand gestures that leverage. Open palm, facing forward type gestures tend to be perceived as very open, welcoming, genuinely cooperative. And those things can be so valuable on video. Because typically you want to make it obvious that this is a collaborative conversation, or I really care about what you have to say. And we can do that with our hand gestures in a very human way.  

Hand gestures that can be very effective for point-based factual statements are more of these, we call them like baton hand gestures. So almost as though you’re a conductor, right? And you don’t want to necessarily be like, this is really important, blah blah. You want to be like, this is critical, right? So the way it’s almost like your hands can start describing the nuance around whatever it’s that you’re sharing. 

And then the only things to avoid, really, there are two. Pointing fingers is never perceived positively. You point fingers, right? Okay. Meet you. You, it’s just perceived to be very accusatory. And the thing with video is that you might be pointing your hand at one person, but literally everyone’s going to get that. 

And then the other thing is that it is possible to have too many hand gestures. And our software will also let you know if you’ve gotten a little overexcited, and next thing you’re using hand gestures in every single moment of your speech. And that actually, on video especially, it’s not good in person either. But on video especially, it becomes very distracting.  

Rich: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. How about intonation, the way we’re speaking the volume, where does that play a role? 

Rachel: That plays a big role in engagement and empathy. The way you vary your intonation and add or detract from the level of retention and the level of attention that your audience pays to you. 

So if you are speaking monotonously, it makes it very easy to tune you out. And it’s less about where you are on the tonal spectrum, and it’s more about the consistency with which you maintain that tone.  

The brain is a very efficient organ. And if there’s nothing changing here, that piece of information is no longer as interesting to us. Let’s find some other things that are interesting. Then all of a sudden people start roaming around. They’re checking out what’s in your backgrounds, not listening to what you’re saying. And then as soon as you change your intonation, or maybe you pause for a moment and leverage some silence, it’s a change that every brain recognizes, and you’ve got their attention again. So that’s a pretty critical thing to keep in mind, the way that you deliver and vocalize your words. 

Rich: It almost reminds me of words on the printed page. Like I always tell people when they’re writing for content for the web, is that paragraph is way too long. That may have been a good paragraph in grammar school, but I don’t want to see more than two sentences in a paragraph because you need to break it up. You need white space, you need bullets.  

And then, so that catches people’s attention on the written page, and it almost sounds like there’s similarities to the spoken word as well. And we have to have italics and bold and bullet points and white space when we’re talking in the same way that we put them on the page. That’s fascinating.  

All right. We’ve all been through Zoom meetings that have gone way too long, but facial expression is one of the things that you take a look at. So what do we do to keep engaged and keep people engaged with us that doesn’t come across as being phony?  

Rachel: The biggest thing we want to keep in mind with facial expressions on video is that having a neutral facial expression is more negatively perceived on video than it is in person. So if I’m sitting here and I’m not changing my facial expressions at all, granted I’m talking, but if I were listening to you, it would very quickly become a little disconcerting. And you would be like, did she freeze? Are there audio issues? All of a sudden you start instigating this pretty significant level of anxiety in the person who is speaking to you or your partner in conversation. And almost all of it stems from the way you are not engaging with your face. 

And so while a lot of people tend to bias towards smile, just smile, we tend to emphasize variation in facial expressions more. Because you can do a furrowed brow, you can have a moment of shock or surprise at what someone has said. Again, a head tilt or whatever, and you don’t have to smile at all and it can still be very helpful and engaging and interesting. So again, t’s in reminding yourself or having a technology like Virtual Sapiens remind you that oh hey, by the way, it’s been two minutes since you moved your head.  

And we have different cues for facial expression, variation reminders, and active listening reminders. But it’s so easy to maybe not even tune out or zone out, but it’s very easy to not be as engaged as we might really want to be. And in some cases, that can drag a meeting out even longer if we’re not helping people move things along more quickly. 

Rich: A lot of what you’re saying, it’s about varying, like just not sitting still, not standing still. And it’s almost reminds me of, and you of course have a background in theater by doing ballet, so it’s like the difference between a stage actor and a movie or TV actor. Where a movie or TV actor can have a very subtle movement and it can speak volumes, but if you’re on stage, no one’s going to see that in the back of the theater. So you have to go a little bit bigger with your movements.  

You have to be not aggressive, but a little bit more maybe assertive with some of your hand gestures or intonation. And it almost feels like that’s the overriding message here is that you can’t just sit back and have the conversation you might have if you were in person. That you have to really step up as if you were on stage when you’re having these presentations. Would you say that’s…okay. 

Rachel: Yeah. I would say that’s true. I would say there’s definitely something like if you even think about the way you nod your head. Like in person we might be able to impulse imperceptibly nod our head, but on video you have to be a little more emphatic and account for some of the delays possibly in streaming. 

And the other thing I’ll say is, as much as we talk about these different behavioral nonverbal best practices, there’s still a lot of room to improve general meeting etiquette. I think there are too many video meetings. I think a lot of video meetings are longer than they need to be. I don’t think they’re well managed. So fixing these things will be so incredibly helpful. But they won’t, if a meeting doesn’t have to, if a video meeting doesn’t have to be a video meeting, it probably could have been an email. And nonverbals isn’t necessarily going to change that. 

Rich: A lot of what we talked about has been more about meetings and communication. Is there any different advice you might give for those people who are using Zoom or Teams – which is my least favorite of all of them – as more of a presentation platform or a webinar platform, is it the same rules? Are there some things that we should keep in mind if we are the one presenting?  

Rachel: Is this, can you see the other participants? 

Rich: I guess that’s a great question. I’m thinking I’ve got a webinar coming up. I will not see the attendees in that particular case. But I’ve also done ones where it’s a small enough group that they do show up on screen, or their name does. Because a lot of times I know they’re not really there and they just had to show up for work and so they just turn on my Zoom 

Rachel: Okay. So they might be there. 

Rich: Or you’re not getting any verbal feedback on whether or not they’re still awake.  

Rachel: Which is, honestly, that’s a pet peeve. Perhaps I just really, I’m like, if you’re going to be there, we all know that if you turn your video off, everyone’s multitasking. And if you’re multitasking, you’re taking in like 15% of what’s being shared. You’re wasting your time and you’re wasting everyone’s time. I don’t like it at all. But anyways, that’s maybe another conversation.  

If you’re presenting to a large format group and you are the main de facto presenter, I would say a general best practice to keep in mind is, and this goes for whether you can see your participants or not, pausing maybe a little more often than you might anticipate, giving your audience the opportunity to digest what you’ve said and possibly formulate a question. 

And the pausing can be like a de facto pause, where you actually pause, put a question out to the audience, wait for a few moments to see if they respond. You have to give people, especially if you can’t see the nonverbals, you have to give people almost like five seconds of time before their thing might show up in the chat. And you don’t want to start racing forward when someone’s just manically trying to type their question into the chat, right? Give them an opportunity, communicate that you’re going to pause and wait for a few seconds so nobody feels awkward. “I’ll give you a few moments to reflect on that. Does anyone have any questions?” Wait. “Great. Look, we just got one from blah, blah, blah.” Then all of a sudden it’s just wonderful. So that’s one thing that I highly recommend is incorporating a few of those moments of explicit invitation to your audience to participate.  

And then the other one that’s related is to just be aware of your general speech speed. If you’re getting no verbal or non-verbal feedback from your audience, you can just race through stuff so quickly. And again, if you’re speaking at the exact same pace or you’re speaking at the same tone or you haven’t incorporated some of these non-verbals, it’s just easier to tune out and not retain as much as people might otherwise. 

Rich: I also wonder if you’re doing the presentation and you’ve got a slide deck. Suddenly you are the small, little box in the corner. And you have to take everything you’ve talked about so far and just amplify it even further, so they see that little movement in the small corner.  

Rachel: Yeah. We don’t have to be crazy exaggerated just in general with video. You want to remember how much space you have to leverage, and you want to leverage that space. But you don’t need to be crazy, right? Because it can become almost emotion sickness if you do.  

But if you’re sharing your screen, I would just say your voice becomes that much more important. So the way you leverage your voice becomes very important. And I always encourage people to pause their sharing, take the slides down, ask a question that way, regain that human.  

Rich: Yeah. That’s another great, just like the juxtaposition there of going from screen, from slides back to your face is a great way of pulling people back into the presentation.  

Rachel: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s almost for anyone who may have tuned out or whatever, as soon as you’re back there and you’re looking into the audience, people are like, oh my God. Yes. I’m with you. I’m with you, blah, blah. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed for the audience.  

Rich: The boss is back, look busy! Exactly.  

Rachel: A little bit. Yeah. 

Rich: This has been really great and very helpful. If people want to learn more about what you’re doing at Virtual Sapiens or connect with you, where can we send them online?  

Rachel: Virtualsapiens.co is the easiest way to connect with us to check out our products. We have free trials of both the assessment and the in-call sidekicks. So I recommend anyone who’s interested, just try them out for yourself. 

Rich: Excellent. And we’ll have links to those. And like I said, I picked up a lot of tips. I thought I was a star. I realized I am, at best, an understudy. So I definitely got some really good feedback that I’m putting into my own practice. Rachel, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today. 

Rachel: My pleasure. Thank you. 

Show Notes:  

Rachel Cossar is a master of nonverbal communication and leadership presence facilitation. As video events become essential for connecting and making an impact across organizations, Rachel and her team at Virtual Sapiens offer a groundbreaking opportunity for business communication. Check out the FREE trial software! 

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 25+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.